The Netflix corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe will be expanding uptown to Harlem when Luke Cage debuts on September 30. The cast and creators of the show say that the character’s race, his adopted neighborhood, and publishing history make Luke Cage a very different superhero adaptation.
The producers and cast of Luke Cage were in the spotlight in a big way on the first day of Comic-Con 2016, first at an afternoon roundtable for the press and later during a panel in front of hundreds of fans. Executive producer Cheo Hodari Coker—who I’ve chatted with intermittently over the years through mutual friends—said “We don’t shy away from the fact that Luke Cage is one of Marvel’s first black superheroes. But, at the same time, the question we deal with is, why does anybody with special abilities come out of the shadows?”
Plot details are being held close to the vest but it’s apparent that the bulletproof hero will be tackling a criminal enterprise that threatens to engulf the entire neighborhood of Harlem. Alfre Woodard, who plays politician Mariah Dillard, said “Harlem, because it has such a deep history, is a place that pulls people in from around the world. There’s a very real struggle for its identity that the show taps into.” Jeph Loeb, a veteran comics writer who’s now the head of Marvel Television, talked about the difference between the heroes in the films and the shows. “The Avengers save the universe,” he offered. “We wanted to tell stories about characters who save the streets.”
Coker said that Luke Cage will be touching on Harlem’s history as a worldwide capital of black culture. “Harlem is a place where black folk managed to organize politically and artistically so that we see ourselves represented in government and literature and other fields. A threat to Harlem’s stability is symbolic.” While Luke Cage has been in production for about two years, series star Mike Colter said, “the show’s themes are a product of the times. He deals with some of the same issues as Captain America—like living up to people’s expectations of him—but the way he’s perceived is different.”
Woodard couldn’t get into specifics about the nature of the bad guys Cage would be facing, but did say that actors who play evildoers “should be identifying with the villain to find out why they want to re-align the world in their vision.” She also talked about the title character, too. “What’s great about Luke is his reluctance. He’s very accessible; we all have to make choices every day about how much to get involved in the world around us.”
Later in the day, the Luke Cage panel started with a trailer that showed highlights of the Marvel Netflix shows so far, ending with a close-up on the Punisher. Loeb came on stage in a Luke Cage hoodie. After some corporate cheerleading blather from Loeb, Jon Bernthal—who played the Punisher on season 2 of Daredevil—came on to excited applause. Bernthal said “I know how much [Frank Castle] means to you guys, how much he means to members of the military and law enforcement. Frank is in my bones now; he’s with me. It makes me love my family harder, squeeze my kids harder.”
During the panel, Coker talked about reading Power Man comics as a kid, saying “Luke Cage stood out because he was funny interesting and strong. Because of all the things that are happening, the world is ready for a bulletproof black man.” Talking about the neighborhood where the show takes place, Woodard said “Everything that makes Harlem is there. Don’t expect some brother to be blocking bullets when you go to Harlem, though.”
Coker called the show he worked on “the Wu-Tang-ification of the Marvel Universe.” “It’s rough, it’s got grit, but there’s elegance” he explained. Several clips played during the panel, the first showing Mahershala Ali as Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes and Woodard’s Mariah Dillard in a fancy club where they argue about who’s compromised more by a theft. Another scene showed Cottonmouth assaulting someone who stole from him, standing in front of an oversized photograph of The Notorious B.I.G.. Coker, a former journalist and music critic who interviewed the late Christopher Wallace at the beginning of his rap career and shortly before his untimely death, said Biggie loved gangster movies and his approach to Cottonmouth comes from him and the stories he told.
Speaking on the iconic private eye character she portrays, Missick said “She’s not a wife, girlfriend or sidepiece/sidekick. She’s her own woman.” Missick added that “Misty ain’t in her work clothes when you first meet her,” setting up a clip that showed Luke and Misty bantering out on the street and then making out in an apartment.
Marvel executive Joe Quesada popped in to announce that season 3 of Daredevil has been greenlit. The panel wound down with an Iron Fist teaser introduced on video by star Finn Jones, who’s playing martial arts master Danny Rand in the upcoming show. The sneak peek opened by showing a young Danny during a plane ride with mom, cutting to a first-generation iPod, his seat crashed in snow, and two robed monk-like figures looking down on him. The milieu then shifts to modern day Manhattan, showing Danny restrained in a hospital bed and then cutting to him kicking down a wall. The very last bit of the panel culminated with a teaser for The Defenders, with a voice intoning what sounded like “You four think you can save the city? You can barely save yourselves.”